History over the Generations
In the December Issue of the American Historical Review
The December issue of the American Historical Review reflects an ongoing effort to incorporate diverse forms of scholarly expression in our pages. This is the fifth issue of the year, and it includes only a single research article—on the “mobility politics” of the Third Reich. In addition, it includes a historiographic essay on the rapidly expanding literature in US queer history; a review essay focusing on a pair of pessimistic titles in “deep history”; a feature review considering six recent works in Palestinian history; a cluster of five reviews of graphic histories, a genre never before treated in the AHR’s pages; and Jacqueline Jones’s (Univ. of Texas at Austin) reappraisal of Gerda Lerner’s 1967 classic of feminist historiography, The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Pioneers for Women’s Rights and Abolition. Finally, the issue includes our regular December feature, the AHR Conversation.
The research article, Andrew Denning’s (Univ. of Kansas) “‘Life Is Movement, Movement Is Life!’: Mobility Politics and the Circulatory State in Nazi Germany,” provocatively suggests that the culture of the Third Reich celebrated mobility as much as it cherished rootedness. As Denning notes, historians have long understood rootedness—an intimate bond between lands and peoples—as a hallmark of the Nazi regime and German racial thinking. At the same time, German ambitions to seize territories in eastern Europe and the USSR and the creation of a land-based empire are elements of what Zygmunt Bauman calls “heavy modernity,” technocratic development linked to territorial acquisition. Closer attention to German engagements with mobility, Denning proposes, reveals how the material effects, embodied experiences, and discursive renderings of movement in Nazi Germany influenced both geopolitical calculations and everyday life. Denning contends that “mobility politics” lay at the foundation of power relations in the Third Reich and that the Nazis developed a set of institutions designed to manage the productive potential and disruptive danger of mobility.
If Denning’s article seeks to challenge a common analytical frame, Regina Kunzel (Princeton Univ.) tracks the emergence of a bold new historiography in her comprehensive essay, “The Power of Queer History.” From its initial engagement with questions about the emergence of sexual identity formation, community life, and social movement activism, Kunzel shows, LGBT/queer history has expanded to consider the ways in which sexual and gender nonconformity are imbricated in broad histories of power, politics, and the state. As David Minto’s article in the October issue of the AHR (“Perversion by Penumbras: Wolfenden, Griswold, and the Transatlantic Trajectory of Sexual Privacy”) suggests, rather than a bounded identity category, queer can operate as a powerful critical lens and mode of analysis, one that unsettles a range of taken-for-granted assumptions, institutions, and arrangements. Kunzel’s timely essay explores dynamic new work in the field of LGBT/queer history, much of it focused on the modern United States, to illustrate the interplay of sexuality and power across a broad range of historical narratives and fields.
Regina Kunzel’s timely historiographic essay explores dynamic new work in the field of LGBT/queer history.
Kunzel’s essay is paired with a very different kind of historiographic excavation. In “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” geographer Michael J. Watts (Univ. of California, Berkeley) reviews in tandem two recent works in “deep history”: James C. Scott’s Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (2017) and Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (2017). Each book is civilizational in scope, covering millennia rather than centuries, and the two authors share an abiding pessimism about the trajectory of the Anthropocene.
Scott’s message, Watts maintains, is an echo of Jared Diamond’s famous assessment of the Neolithic Revolution—“the worst mistake in human history.” In sharp contrast to the plenitude, freedoms, and relative equality of foraging lifestyles, the domestication of plants and animals and the birth of agrarian states brought a Hobbesian dystopia of drudgery, undernutrition, higher mortality rates, forced and enslaved labor, war, epidemics, and the threat of almost constant sociopolitical turbulence. In a similar register, Scheidel argues that human history provides all the necessary preconditions for systematic inequality, which have, in fact, now been fully globalized. Historically, Scheidel argues, any social leveling that has occurred had a common source in massive and violent disruptions of the prevailing political and economic order, typically by total war, state collapse, epidemics, or violent revolutionary transformation. Watts assesses these arguments, their similarities and points of departure, and how they stand in relation to other accounts of historical inequality. This should make for sobering reading in an era of rampant social maldistribution and in the wake of the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which indicates that our current mode of civilization has likely entered its climatological endgame.
In this issue, we also continue to experiment with new kinds of featured reviews that push beyond the evaluation of one or two titles and instead point to the rich array of materials beyond the traditional monograph that might be of interest to historians. In the first category, anthropologist Ilana Feldman (George Washington Univ.) considers half a dozen recent titles in Palestinian history. These run the gamut from a study of Mandatory Palestine in the wake of World War I to a critical account of Palestinian life in the Gaza Strip under Israeli domination to histories and anthropologies of the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank to a personal rumination on the dilemmas of using Israeli law to defend Palestinian human rights. Feldman’s essay demonstrates that a half century of occupation has generated a vibrant scholarly landscape that considers both the deeply destructive effects of Israeli actions on the everyday lives of Palestinians and the subjective experiences of those seeking to blunt the impact of persistent national oppression.
Continuing our new practice of reviewing non-monographic material, the December issue also boasts a cluster of five reviews of an exploding genre of historical writing: graphic books. Guest-edited by Trevor R. Getz (San Francisco State Univ.), this section includes reviews of graphic treatments of the American Civil War, Cuban revolutionary history, a plague of rats in colonial Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, and a forgotten 1956 massacre of Palestinians in Gaza, the latter rendered by the renowned narrative artist Joe Sacco. Reviewers appear divided on the utility of the format as a mode of history writing, but graphic histories constitute a genre that scholars will surely have to reckon with.
Finally, the annual AHR Conversation takes up the topic of “generations.” I asked seven scholars—of early modern and modern Europe, of contemporary China, India, and Africa, of colonialism, and of indigenous history—to consider how useful the concept has been in structuring their approaches to the past, as well as in the historiography in their fields. The results prove revealing, as the protean concepts of age cohorts, generational experiences and sensibilities, and impositions of life-cycle categories appear to have wide resonance across time and space. I hope the discussion will suggest to readers how historians themselves navigate generational responsibilities—to the dead, to those not yet born, to the past, and, if such a thing remains possible in our age, to the future. Those who find such speculations of interest should join us in January at the AHA annual meeting for a panel discussion on the same topic, featuring four contributors to the Conversation: Abosede George (Barnard Coll. and Columbia Univ.), Clive Glaser (Univ. of the Witwatersrand), Emily Marker (Rutgers Univ.–Camden), and Bernd Weisbrod (Univ. of Göttingen).
The headlight of a Volkswagen T2 bus evokes two features in the December issue. On the one hand, as the preeminent symbol of Hitler’s ability to make car ownership a widespread aspiration of German citizens under the Third Reich, the VW lends credence to Andrew Denning’s argument in his article “‘Life Is Movement, Movement Is Life!’” that “mobility politics” were a central component of Nazism. At the same time, a generation later, the VW became attached to countercultural values aimed at rejecting the West’s values of consumption, growth, and complacency. Such generational transformation is the topic of this year’s AHR Conversation, “Each Generation Writes Its Own History of Generations.” Photo by Dennis Wong. Wikimedia Commons.
Alex Lichtenstein is editor of the American Historical Review. His most recent book, co-authored with his brother, photojournalist Andrew Lichtenstein, is Marked, Unmarked, Remembered: A Geography of American Memory (2017).
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